The Love Affair

Our family spent the last two weeks in upstate NY visiting our relatives. Last year, I felt almost desperate to get there shortly after completing chemotherapy. At that point in time, I still was not feeling completely confident about my future and I had a strong need to see and touch my family. This year, still feeling strong and healthy following my recent 100 mile race, I looked forward to seeing my family not out of desperation, but out of the simple desire to see the people I love. We had a wonderful time relaxing, getting away from the stresses of our daily lives, and reconnecting with our families and friends.

Hair blowing wildly in the wind on the Lake Champlain Ferry

Hair blowing wildly in the wind on the Lake Champlain Ferry

Today is my two month anniversary from having completed the Bryce 100. Since the race, I have had plenty of people tell me that I no longer have to do ultras anymore. However, a funny thing has happened since Bryce. I seemed to have remembered how much I love running and racing. In the lead up to Bryce, I kept telling everyone I knew that I would never run another 100. I meant it with complete sincerity. I was tired and worried. I was afraid that some nagging pains I was experiencing would become serious injuries. I thought that maybe I had not put in enough miles in training. I was concerned that perhaps my heart was not completely into finishing 100 miles.

All of those worries ended up being completely unfounded. Instead, while I was out on the course, I remembered how much I just love to compete. I love to run, but I had forgotten how much I love the thrill of hunting down other runners, and of pushing myself to see what I am actually capable of accomplishing. I have never been an elite runner. I have no idea what that experience is like. But as a slightly better than average runner, I still get incredibly fired up over testing my limits. I love pushing myself as hard as I can to see how my body and mind will respond. It makes me feel completely alive.

I have run many races since I started running in 1998. I remember the thrill of crossing the finish line at my first marathon. I could not wait to do it all over again, and so I ran my second marathon just seven weeks later. I remember the first time I ran a 5k and a 10k at an all out effort. I was not sure if I could sustain the pace without passing out or throwing up, but I did and I was so proud of myself for giving everything I had. I remember the excitement of running the Boston Marathon, which to this day is the only big city marathon I have ever competed in.

Boston Marathon 2000

Boston Marathon 2000

I remember the joy of finishing my first ultra, a 50k. I remember the apprehension leading up to my first 50 mile race, and then the elation as I crossed the finish line. I remember the incredible pride I felt after finishing my first 100 mile race, as I experienced the payoff of months and months of hard work and dedication. This year, I returned to road marathons in Lincoln, Nebraska. I had not run a road marathon since 2007, and as I ran through crowds of people, I remembered exactly why I fell in love with marathons so many years ago. I returned to 100s this year, in Bryce, and my love affair with trails and ultras was reignited.

But racing is never easy. On numerous occasions, I have engaged in an internal battle with myself. There have been several races where I have wondered if I would be able to finish what I had started. During one trail race that had gone poorly almost from the start, I sat in a mud bank and debated about whether I could go on. I decided that I could. Nothing was broken, and I was not in physical danger. I was just having a bad day. I am tremendously proud of those race finishes that I really had to fight for.

Every distance I have chosen to run over the course of my lifetime has proven to be a challenge in a very different way. Every race has been hard and painful and wonderful and beautiful all at the same time. I have never regretted having shown up to run a race. Each experience has been unique and has taught me something new about myself. That is the beauty in running. Every outing provides a new challenge. Each distance is hard in its own way. No two racing experiences are alike. Just thinking about facing those difficulties gives me a jolt of mental excitement. I love it all: the competition, the challenge, chasing down other runners, and trying to fight off those who are attempting to beat me. Perhaps most of all, I love battling against my own demons.

When I finished Vermont, I thought I had officially closed the book on running 100s. Then I got cancer. It became an important part of my psychological recovery to push those boundaries again.I am still so happy about my experience at the Bryce 100. Part of me wondered if my experience at Vermont was a fluke. My second 100 mile finish made it all feel more legitimate in some way. More importantly, my time at Bryce reminded me how much I enjoy the whole race experience. In the lead up to Bryce, I often felt tired and I had some nagging aches and pains. I think I was not yet 100% following my battle with pancreatic cancer. I hope I have finally officially turned the corner on the road to a full comeback. More often than not these days, I am excited to go out and run. That feeling was often lacking a few months ago.

Vermont 100 finish, 2013

Vermont 100 finish, 2013

Like all long-term love affairs, feelings will wax and wane over the years. The secret is to learn to be patient and weather the difficult times. I am thankful that I have never given up over the times that running was less fun. These days, whether I am running up in the mountains or am pushing for a long flat steady-state run, I have rediscovered the fun and joy. I have three completely different races coming up in the next three months and I am very excited for each of them. Beyond that, I am really looking forward to finding out what new adventure the 100 mile lottery gods have in store for me in 2016. 

11796324_10204804728813744_806987290889526892_n

 

Advertisements

My New World

In the weeks since my last post, I signed up for three races. I will be running the Breck Crest full with my husband at the end of August. Next up will be the Bear Chase Trail race 50 at the end of September. Finally, in October, I will run the Denver Rock ‘n’ Roll Half-Marathon with my Project Purple team. These races could not be any more different, but I am looking forward to a late summer/fall of running in beautiful places with my husband, my friends and teammates.

In the meantime, we have been keeping busy with travel, work and important milestones.

Riley got her driver’s license yesterday.

Outside of the DMV

Outside of the DMV

If we had been on target, she would have had it a while ago, but when one person in the family gets cancer, the whole family suffers consequences. When I was sick, I was not well enough to practice driving with Riley most days. So, while her friends, one by one, posted happy pictures outside of the DMV as they got their licenses, my daughter had to wait patiently for her turn. Sometimes she was distressed by the fact that it was taking so long, but she never made me feel guilty about my own limitations. It took us a long time to get her mandatory driving hours completed. But we finally did and the big day was Tuesday of this week. We waited for close to four hours at the DMV but I would have waited in that office for a week just to be there with her for that special rite of passage. It was one of those moments that happens once in a lifetime and I got to be there to witness it.

I know this is an exciting moment in most families, but for me, it was a joy that I can never fully convey. As I lay in the hospital after my surgery for pancreatic cancer, I wondered whether I would get to witness all of these milestones. I said to myself repeatedly, “I just have to make it to graduation.” Every dance, every ceremony, every college visit, every “first” or “final” day is something that I celebrate with an enthusiasm that I probably would not have had before. For every significant moment in my kids’ lives, I think to myself, “I didn’t know if I was going to get to be here, but here I am!”

After we went through the paperwork at the DMV, I teared up. Standing in a sea of people in the dirty and crowded room, I cried and hugged my daughter. I didn’t care who saw or what they thought. The truth is that I cry a lot these days. These tears are not from sadness, but are from a place of profound gratitude. Really feeling every single emotion has been one of the gifts of the last 20 months. I have always been an intense person. Whereas I used to try to downplay intensity, now I celebrate it. It is such a gift to fully experience love and joy and excitement and even sadness in this new post-cancer phase of my life. I never thought that my emotional world was muted before, but now it feels like it most certainly was in ways that I did not recognize. My emotions are often right at the surface. Simple things bring such profound joy. I see everything through a new, different and clearer lens. I went to sleep in a world filled with blacks, whites and grays. I woke up to a world that was an explosion of vivid and vibrant color.

Could this have happened without having experienced something so life-altering? I do not know, but I do think it is a fairly common phenomenon for some of us who have been affected by a life-threatening illness. Just last night, I spoke to a friend of mine who has been battling lung, adrenal and brain cancer. He shared with me that he experiences the same raw emotions all of the time. Neither of us feels ashamed of our new heightened emotional state. The biggest similarity I see between the two of us is the profound sense of gratitude that we have for every minute we get on the planet.  Every time I look at my kids, my husband, my dogs, or the beauty of nature in my home state of Colorado, I feel like my heart may just burst with joy and love. For all of the difficult moments from the last 20 months, I do not think I would change a thing. I get to be here on this beautiful planet for another day. How wonderful is that?

11201864_10204689182405156_3247722076011563123_n

11709544_10204597494113006_6075481279969917724_n

1536449_10204480569749970_1692933462757125888_n

Good News, Bad News

This is the longest I have gone without writing a blog post. Part of the reason why I have not written here this week is because I have been writing for a Pancreatic Cancer charity called Project Purple. Project Purple raises funds for medical research as well as to assist people who have been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Project Purple’s motto is “Running to Beat Pancreatic Cancer”. So far, I have been mostly writing features about the people who run to raise money for Project Purple. I am also working on entries featuring pancreatic cancer survivors. Each story is inspirational and I feel so honored to get to interview these amazing individuals and share their stories. I am grateful for the opportunity to help make a difference in some small way for the future of this disease. Please check out the Project Purple website, and read the stories on my blog page.

http://www.run4projectpurple.org/tonias-blog/

My writing is part of the good news. The other good news is that I had a CT scan on Monday and there are no masses or lesions in my abdomen, chest or pelvis. This is obviously great news and a nice early Christmas gift for my entire family. Each CT scan that shows no evidence of disease is a relief. I feel good about my odds for staying cancer-free about 95% of the time. I still get the occasional doubts and fears that creep into my thoughts, but they are fewer and farther between these days.

The “bad” news that I got this week is that what I thought was a minor hamstring injury is actually not my hamstring at all, but something altogether more problematic. The week following my horribly painful Rock Canyon Half-marathon, I decided to take some action. My leg has been hurting since I ran the Bear Chase 50 mile race at the end of September. I tried to rehab it a bit myself, but the pain would migrate. My hamstring hurt, then my butt hurt, then my psoas hurt. I could never quite pin down what was truly the problem. So I went to see a physical therapist this week. He asked me how my back pain was, and I replied, “My back doesn’t hurt.” He repeated his question, and then I remembered that I have a herniated L5-S1 from many, many years ago. Though the initial injury was very painful, I eventually turned it around enough that I completely forget it ever existed. My pain all makes sense now. I was experiencing numbness in my butt down into my foot but I guess I did not want to acknowledge it might be anything more complicated than a muscle issue.

Truthfully, my running has been generally pretty painful and not a whole lot of fun lately. Between the pain in my lower body and the ongoing issues related to my breathing, I sometimes wonder when running will be fun again. I have no answers for the breathing issues yet, which is frustrating, but at least I have a reason for my lower body pain. I figure that understanding the problem is half the battle. I hope that if I am diligent about following the physical therapist’s recommendations, I can at least be out of pain again in the near future. I really hope I can turn things around soon, as I have several races I plan to run in the coming months. I am trying really hard to keep my spirits up. I do not have cancer, and I am grateful for that. I just want to feel good again. I wonder if I will ever feel as healthy and strong as I used to feel. After my surgery and 18 rounds of chemotherapy, I was really looking forward to getting back to my old self. It seems to be taking longer than I thought it would. It has been six months now since I completed chemo. I had hoped by this point, that most of the residual side effects would be a distant memory. Unfortunately, it just seems like the fatigue and breathing issues are continuing to hang on.

In the mean time, even though I sometimes wonder why I continue running when it feels so darned difficult every single day, I refuse to give up. I have to believe that all of this struggle will be worth it in the end. At some point, things will improve and I will be so glad that I never gave up and did not lose faith. Finally, I got to run here this week, and it was beautiful.

IMG_3775

IMG_3778

Bear Chase 50 Mile Race Report

Yesterday I ran the Bear Chase trail race 50 mile race. I have run this ultra twice before. In 2012, I ran the 50 mile in 8:39, finishing as third female overall. Last year, I ran the new 100k and was first female. This year, as I went through my cancer treatments, I kept it as a goal of mine to be back this year for one of the distances. I was not sure what I would be able to run, but I hoped to run one of the ultras (there are 10k, half marathon, 50k, 50 mile and 100k distances offered at this race). A couple of months ago I decided to go for it and sign up for the 50 mile. My husband, Stephen, and my friend, Vanessa also signed up for the 50k.

I will skip over the my less than stellar prep, other than to say I did the best I could given the circumstances. I have written about it previously, and those interested can scan over my previous blog posts. In the week leading up to the race, I thought about how I felt like I was brand new to ultras. I felt like I still had the same brain, but after my pancreatic cancer surgery and my 18 rounds of chemo, my body was different and there was a big question mark in my brain as to how my body would respond when I really demanded something difficult.

Steve and I picked up Vanessa at 4:20 am and headed up to Morrison, CO. The forecast was a little scary. After some unseasonably cold weather, we were in a heatwave, with temperatures predicted to be in the mid 80s and sunny. It was 66 degrees at 5:15 when we arrived in Morrison. We put our drop bags down in the staging area, took care of last minute business and those of us running the 50 mile and 100k lined up for the 6:30 am start.

Last minute “good byes and good lucks” with Vanessa…

And with my husband, Stephen.

A group of us in front of the porta potties, because that’s just what runners do.

From left: Ali, me, Jeff, Christoph and Dan.

At 6:30 am, we were off. The fifty mile race consists of four 12.5 mile loops. When I ran the race two years ago, I finished my first loops in just over two hours each. I knew it was going to be hot, so I wanted to get the first loop done as quickly as I could. I normally go out fairly slowly, but I wanted to bank some time for the inevitable slow down. I saw Heather just as we were starting off, so we chatted and ran the first couple of miles together before eventually splitting up to run our own races.

I felt pretty good on that first loop, running pretty much every step. I got back to the start area in 2:02. I thought, either I am going to hang on and have an amazing finish or I am going to blow up.  I had to spend several minutes at the start area, refilling my supplies before heading back out. On the second loop, runners started spreading out a bit, however, this is when the 50k racers, who started at 7:30 on a different loop, begin to join the people who are running the longer races. Many of these runners are running faster and look a little fresher. This is where my competitive spirit kicks in and I want to chase people down, but I had to remind myself not to be an idiot and just to run my own race.

I felt ok on the second loop. I was running a little more slowly, but more in line with a pace that made sense to my body. I was not pushing myself as hard but had settled into a rhythm. The sun was now up, and even though there was a breeze, I was starting to get a sense of how hot it was going to end up being. I finished my second loop in about 4:15. Slowing a bit, but still thinking I might be able to run a sub 9 hour if things went well.

I went out on my third loop. This was where I would be getting into unknown territory. My longest run had been a flat 24 miler about two months before the race. While the Bear Chase course is not mountainous, it does roll, notably going up Mount Carbon four times, followed by a long downhill. I lacked hill training and I knew it. It was also getting very hot as we headed into the late morning. I now walked up all of Carbon to save myself for the rolling, exposed nature of the last half of the course. I was running strong on the downhill after Carbon somewhere around mile 30. A gentleman stepped off the trail to let me pass. Something seized up in my hamstring. I thought it popped, but couldn’t be sure. I could not run at this point. In fact, I was walking with a significant limp. I thought my race was over and didn’t even think I would be able to finish the third loop. I walked, limped, massaged my leg, and tried to dunk it in the creek, but could not bend. I walked up to the next aid station, only to find Stephen there waiting for me. We each grabbed a drink of Coke and moved on walking together. I told him I really did not want to drop, but I did not know if I would physically be able to finish or not. It was at this point that Stephen threw up the Coke he had just drank. My poor husband has been plagued by stomach issues in ultras. We talked about our races and what had gone wrong so far. We alternated between small bits of jogging and longer stretches of walking.

Finally, I was able to run slowly for a consistent stretch and thought perhaps I could get the last loop in and salvage a finish after all. Stephen and I ended up splitting up again, as he told me to go ahead. I got through the start/finish area again somewhere around 7 hrs. My slowest loop by far, but considering how much I had walked, it was not too much of a disaster. I was greeted by Vanessa’s husband Andy in the start/finish area. Andy graciously helped refill my water bottle and helped me get my head straight while I tried to face the last loop on my own. Stephen came in while I was still at the staging area, finishing his 50k in 5:58:14. He told me that he had thrown up two more times after we parted ways. I am so proud of my husband for finishing so strong despite the stomach issues that continue to plague him!

I finally got off on my way to the last 12.5 miles. Maybe a third of a mile into my loop, I happened to cross paths with Dimitar, who was running his first 50 mile race. We decided to run together and ended up sharing 6ish miles together until the top of Mount Carbon. I had run on my own for much of the race, and had not been looking to a very long and slow final loop on my own. Finding someone who I could share miles and conversation with made it so much more pleasant to keep going in the face of pain. While we parted ways for the final miles of the race, we ended up leapfrogging and finished within a minute of each other.

Here is a photo of us from the finish.

The final six miles were hard. Every step hurt. I kept pounding salt down my throat, trying to stave off the cramps that now plagued both legs, my arms, my neck, and my back. While you can hide your weaknesses in shorter races, ultras will always expose them. I know the last year has taken a toll on my muscle tone and strength and this is something I really need to work on if I want racing to be remotely pleasant. I wanted to walk desperately, but I really wanted to finish quickly and just be done with it. So, I kept pushing as hard as I could. I briefly thought I could break 9:30, but then I realized it was not going to happen. I knew I could break 10 hours, and did so in 9:34:15.

I have never been so grateful, thankful and relieved to finish a race. When I finished the Vermont 100 last July, I was ecstatic. Everything hurt, but it was a different kind of pain. I was well trained and had a great race. This time, it was painful and difficult most of the way through. About two miles prior to the finish, I finally let myself think I was going to complete the race, and tears welled up in my eyes. I would not let myself cry until the finish line. As soon as I crossed the finish, and saw Race Director Ben Reeves coming towards me with my medal, I started to cry.

I finished as fifth female, and second in my Age Group. Here I am with RD, Ben, who gave me my award.

So many emotions welled up at once. I thought about everything I had been through this past year since last year’s 100k, and how much it all meant to me. I thought about everyone who had supported me. I thought about the list of cancer survivors I brought along so I could remember them and run in their honor. I thought about how I almost dropped, but did not and fought through to the end. I thought, I may not be 100%, but I have not allowed cancer to beat me nor to define me.

While everything did not go anywhere near perfectly this time around, I had an amazing experience. As I have discussed with other runners, it is not the races that go perfectly that show how tough we are. It is the races that go south, whether we ultimately finish or not, that really show our inner strength. How we handle circumstances when things do not go as planned really reveals so much about ourselves, and also teaches us so much about ourselves. I am still processing things, but one thing I learned while out there yesterday is that while I love competing, I really had a lot of fun when I spent time running with Heather, my husband and with Dimitar. Sometimes pushing the pace all on my own is really fun for me. Yesterday, I had the most fun when I spent time chatting and working with other runners. There is a place for both intense competition and for fun and joyful companionship in running. Neither are wrong and both can be fun, depending upon the goal for the race.

A lot went wrong yesterday. I think I got behind on nutrition, fluid and electrolytes early in the race. I pushed the pace too hard too early. I was not trained to run fast and I could not maintain the pace. The heat was monstrous and small mistakes are magnified when the weather does not cooperate. I should have taken it conservatively from the start. Really, what it boils down to is that I am out of practice and not in the shape I was in before. These are mistakes that can be fixed, but I had to go into damage control late in a long race. That is not fun and is quite demoralizing. I kept pushing the electrolytes and was able to turn things around enough to continue and even run, albeit slowly.

I am so appreciative of everyone who has sent words of support and encouragement as I have endeavored to return to running ultramarathons.  Knowing I had people following me and cheering me on kept me going. I want to send a special thanks to my running partners who have shared many miles with me. Thank you to all of my friends, both long term and new friends. I love you all and am so fortunate to have so many amazingly supportive people in my life. Thank you to my family. My parents, kids and husband all think I am insane but they have supported me unconditionally. They may not always understand why I want to run crazy distances, but they know it is something that makes me feel happy, whole and alive. I am forever indebted to my husband. I am amazed that we ran into each other at a mutually crappy moment yesterday, but we both encouraged and pushed each other. What a wonderful and supportive partnership we enjoy.

Today there is not an inch of my body that does not hurt. I will be spending the day sitting on an ice pack. My hamstring is tight and painful, but hopefully it is just a minor injury that will heal with rest, recovery and some rehab exercises. As for what is next, I will be focusing on making myself stronger physically for the next few months. I still have a long way to go.

Finally, the finish with Vanessa, who did awesome in her first 50k.

With Stephen. Words cannot adequately explain how much he means to me.